The French Revolution of 1789 ended the rule of feudalism and severely curtailed the activities of its institutions, in particular the Catholic Church. The conditions for the advance of capitalism were established. These were free competition, development of industry, and the development and exploitation of the working class through wage-labour and capital. Ten years later, arising from the dissension between the various sections of the new ruling class, on 9th Nov. 1799 (18th Brumaire) Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the Legislative Assembly (parliament) and set up a military dictatorship.
Marx, in writing the contemporary account of the events set out in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte pointed out that Oliver Cromwell did almost the same thing in England, by dissolving the Long Parliament and declaring himself Lord Protector in 1653. Both these military dictators represented the interests of developing capitalism against the old royalist and feudal aristocracy, and were able to take over political power in the confused and often bitter struggles which took place between rival economic interests after the revolution had been achieved.
It is because capitalism is a class society with conflicting interests between capitalists that even when the fight against the old feudal regime has been successfully accomplished, time must elapse before the revolution can be consolidated and the various interests reconciled. The collective interests of the capitalist class are not necessarily the interests of its members separately. It was the historical task of both Cromwell and Napoleon to push forward the capitalist revolution, and do it quickly. If the representatives of the new order could not come to terms with each other through the parliamentary process, then a dictator would act arbitrarily. In the circumstances prevailing at those periods in history, both Napoleon and Cromwell emerged as the “great men” of the time.
Fifty-two years later, in December 1851, France found herself with another dictator; this time Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte, who tried to play the part of his uncle in an economic and political situation which was different. Marx said in the opening words of The 18th Brumaire: “Hegel remarked that all facts and personages in world history occur as it were twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
The first Napoleon has dissolved parliament in 1798, whereas parliament in 1851 literally handed over all its powers to Louis Bonaparte. The coup d’état, or the alleged seizure of power which had been forecast since 1849, took place with the support of all sections of the capitalist class, including the industrial bourgeoisie. Bonaparte had undertaken to iron out quarrels and stop the movement for the restoration of the monarchy. He promised tranquility. As it subsequently turned out, far from being the saviour of France and following in the footsteps of his uncle, he was a rogue of the first order who plundered state funds.
The struggles which preceded the rise of Louis Napoleon were the expressions of the economic interests of the various sections of the capitalist class. France was a predominantly agricultural country, and firstly there was the recurring struggle between town and country property interests. After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, the monarchy had been restored and generally carried on a reaction against the revolution of 1789. In 1830 the upper tier of the capitalists (described by Marx as the aristocracy of finance, bankers, stock exchange operators, iron and coal mine owners, and landed proprietors) threw out the Bourbons and landed aristocracy, and appointed Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, as a bourgeois liberal monarch. This event was known as “the July monarchy”. In 1848 the lower tier of the capitalists, the industrial bourgeoisie, who formed part of the official opposition, revolted and threw out Louis Philippe in what was later described as the February revolution. (See Class Struggles in France by Marx.)
In these uprisings the working class supported one side or the other. Thousands of workers were slaughtered in the streets of Paris during the June revolution of 1848, when they sided with the small capitalists in a bid for political power. The revolt was defeated, but the big capitalists knew it was only a matter of time before their political supremacy was challenged again. This was one of the important factors which lay behind the transfer of political power to Louis Bonaparte. They chose him as a dictator who abrogated the constitution, introduced censorship of the press, replaced the civil courts by military tribunals, and ruled entirely by the brute force of state power. However, the suspension of the constitution affected the capitalists themselves. It was not in their interests that all their activities should be subjected to state interference, or that public finances and taxation and control of the armed forces should be outside the power of parliament, or to watch Louis Bonaparte and the parasites who surrounded him, drinking and guzzling at their expense.
Under the first Napoleon the French armies had swept across Europe to extend and further the economic interests of French capitalism. But military conquest is a means to an end, the end being the development of trade and industry. Fifty years after the 18th Brumaire of Napoleon I, industry and commerce had made tremendous strides. French capitalism no longer needed imperial generals, it needed business men, scientists and economists. “Its real military leaders sat behind the office desk. The hog headed Louis XVIII (Philippe) was its political chief.” It was no longer a question of whether the revolution of 1789 stood in danger of being overwhelmed by reactionary feudal elements through the disorganization and disagreement of the new ruling class. Capitalism had arrived and there was no putting the clock back.
Louis Bonaparte was out of his time, an anachronism. He was representing a dead epoch and was dominated by the traditions of the past. The revolution of 1789 used the slogans of the old Roman Republic; so did Louis Bonaparte. Once the crisis was over the purpose had gone, but the traditions and names of the past became implanted in the memory of the living. The first Napoleon, in line with the aims of the revolution, had divided up the old feudal lands and created millions of small-holding peasants. The amount of produce from the land is limited; peasant families were always in debt and had to mortgage their land. As Marx put it: “The feudal lords are replaced with the urban usurers.” However, the magic of the name Napoleon produced in the minds of the peasants the idea that he would redress their grievances, as did his uncle, and they supported him. It was this class, about 16 million people, which was represented by Louis Napoleon. From Marx’s point of view this representation was reactionary: peasant property had become an obsolete form. It is only through the development of the capitalist form of production that Socialism becomes a possibility.
The French capitalist political parties all had one thing in common: to keep the working class in their position as wage-slaves. That their own class interests were being represented in different ways by a variety of political spokesmen, and the differences over the disposal of the social wealth produced by workers were bound to arise, did not alter the basic unity amongst the exploiters.
With Louis Bonaparte the capitalists of France chose to impede their own development rather than risk a confrontation with the working class. By choosing the adventurer they did as their caretaker, and abdicating political power, they felt they had made themselves secure. It proved expensive, and in the end it took Bismarck and the Franco Prussian War of 1870 to finally remove him.